Tag Archives: East Asia

How can LA urbanize like East Asia? Regional Growth Axes!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes.

This second article in a series of responses to my piece examines how LA can densify following regional growth corridors, rather than concentrating in a single, high-rise downtown.

Like Los Angeles, Seoul is not only sprawling but “poly-centric”. A study from the early 1990s found that the city of Seoul alone had between three and twelve activity centers. A 2011 text on urban planning practices across the Korean Peninsula found that the Seoul Metropolitan area had three major centers: around the traditional Seoul CBD (around Seoul Station, north of the Han River), Gangnam (in the city of Seoul, south of the Han River) and in Incheon.

More than twenty locations met the authors’ qualifying criteria (20,000 jobs per square kilometer with total employment exceeding 50,000) for “jobs centers,” despite not sufficiently explaining employment distribution in the study’s model (examining the effects of the national government’s “Greenbelt” policy on Seoul’s growth).

Seoul’s polycentrism comes across more clearly when one examines a to-scale subway map of the region. A number of lines converge around the Central Business District. But the dominant pattern is of a tighter grid in and around Seoul city (with multiple employment districts rivaling Downtown LA) giving way to a more loosely-spaced grid around Incheon (the largest employment center outside Seoul City). As one travels to the south and north, urban development clusters along subway and commuter rail lines. Suwon, the largest city in Gyeonggi Province, lies at the junction of a subway and rail line.

Seoul Subway and Rail Map, to-scale. Source: Open Street Map.

Los Angeles, likewise, is a very polycentric city, with “employment centers” in locations ranging from Thousand Oaks down to the Irvine Spectrum. A UC Irvine study found that, from 1997 to 2014, employment “center” locations shifted 20 kilometers closer to downtown on average, and towards areas with passenger rail or freeway access.

Los Angeles Employment Centers in 1997 and 2014. Source: London School of Economics US Centre Blog.

Although job concentrations in Greater Los Angeles, are somewhat dispersed, they coalesce around a few distinct freeway and commuter rail corridors. The I-5/Ventura County Line corridor from Irvine to Simi Valley via Burbank; the I-405 corridor from Beverly Hills south to Long Beach; the San Bernardino and Riverside Line corridors from Downtown east to San Bernardino and Riverside; the 91 corridor from Riverside to Corona and the 15 corridor from Riverside to Temecula.

Employment Center Corridors in Grey, Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor (rough line) in Brown/Red.
Metrolink Map for Comparison. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban cultural attractions and activity centers cluster more tightly around the “Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor’, stretching from Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean (along Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards). This corridor also connects two of Los Angeles’ main job clusters and contains the region’s highest density neighborhoods.

Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor. Source: USC Dornsife School.

Rather than simply bolstering Downtown-or even the City of Los Angeles as a whole-, regional governing entities like SCAG should direct job and housing density towards defined regional growth corridors, in tandem with developing frequent, heavy-rail transit links along and between these corridors.

The development could follow a hierarchy similar to Seoul’s. The highest density of housing and jobs would cluster along the Wilshire/Santa Monica Corridor, served by a tight grid of rail and Bus Rapid Transit (which the street network is well-adapted to). This could feed into another high-density axis, paralleling the 405 from Beverly Hills down to Long Beach. Less intense (but still mid-to-high density) residential and job development would abut the outlying corridors (which have less development to begin with).

Success demands that Los Angeles integrate its subway/light rail and commuter rail networks, making the latter a more reliable transit alternative.

State intervention may prove necessary.

And neighborhoods like Hancock Park, that occupy an excessive quantity of high-value of land, in the heart of the metropolis, must finally accept change.

How can LA Urbanize like East Asia? Densify Residential Streets!

Last week, I wrote about how Seoul, and similarly-formed East Asian cities, provide a model for LA developing into a transit-friendly metropolis without densifying around a core. This model would prove more compatible with LA’s existing urban form and produce more equitable outcomes. LA’s Downtown-focused redevelopment model encourages gentrification and limits new development to the point where it fails to make a dent in regional home prices (if not causing home prices to rise in areas being redeveloped-as the new housing in these areas becomes more desirable to the urban bourgeoisie).

What steps can LA achieve to urbanize its vast expanse like Seoul (or Tokyo or Taipei for that matter?). Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer this question through a series of articles. Today’s examines the effect of residential neighborhoods’ built environments on travel behavior.


As in American cities, most neighborhoods in Seoul have a pretty clear street hierarchy. Take the Bongcheon-Dong neighborhod in the southern part of the city, for instance.

Street hierarchy in Seoul’s Sillim-Dong area. Red= arterial street (generally, the streets that cut through the landscape like rivers and canyons); Yellow=neighborhood commercial; Blue= residential.

The residential streets (example in blue) are little wider than alleyways, with cars and pedestrians sharing the single lane. These empty out onto 1-2 lane neighborhood-serving commercial streets, with small shops or farmer’s markets stalls to serve the community (example in yellow). Finally, six-to-eight-lane arterials (red) ring the edge of the neighborhood. Like Sepulveda and Wilshire Boulevards, these behemoths carry torrents of motorized vehicle (auto and bus) traffic.

Tokyo has a similar hierarchy .

The arterial streets have taller buildings and more transit service than those in Los Angeles, but their street width is actually more hostile to pedestrians. Nevertheless, the Sillim bus stop, along one of Bongcheon-Dong’s (Seoul’s) main arterials, has among the highest number of boardings in South Korea. This confirms my long-found suspicion that the built environment surrounding residential streets influences travel behavior as strongly as that surrounding commercial arterials.

Sepulveda Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley is no wider than an arterial street in Seoul.

Think about it. Residential streets provide the first-last mile connection between one’s home and any destination they are trying to access. The presence (or absence) of retail and grocery stores around the corner determines whether a person will drive to a big box store to obtain necessities (most often accommodated through trip-chaining on a work commute).

Camarillo Street, Just east of Sepulveda Boulevard.

So far, most complete streets work in LA has focused on arterials. For instance, the Mayor’s Office’s LA Great Streets program focuses on major thoroughfares like Venice Boulevard, Robertson Boulevard, and Reseda Boulevard. The city of Los Angeles’s Mobility Plan 2035 downgraded arterial street standards but left local and collector street standards largely untouched.

To be fair, “narrowing” residential streets to Seoul- or Tokyo-style standards would require significant investment (even without political opposition), and the Mobility Plan downgrading intended to avert proposed widening rather than reduce street dimensions. Permitting developers to build into the right-of-way (a reverse form of “setback”) is a possible option, but one prone to a lengthy timeframe and haphazard implementation.

However, improved traffic-calming infrastructure, like bulb-outs and curb extensions, would make residential streets considerably less menacing. Opening up residential streets to cars and bikes would permit even more radical transformation.

Most importantly, loosening height and land use restrictions in residential neighborhoods will facilitate the clustering of homes and small businesses needed to support a car-free lifestyle. These changes are politically contentious in California, but not impossible to achieve.

To summarize, the following policies would help urbanize LA’s residential suburbs, a la Seoul:

  • Densification (no more Hancock Parks or San Marinos)
  • Relax zoning in residential neighborhoods (side streets in Palms need more corner-stores and bars)
  • Open up residential streets to bicyclists and pedestrians. Implement traffic calming measures and signage to compel drivers to respectfully share the road. Mayor Garcetti’s post-COVID 19 “Slow Streets” initiative could be a start.
  • End parking minimums (which attract cars into a neighborhood and reduce developments’ buildable area).
  • Densify arterial streets as well. Use their copious capacity to provide BRT or Rail Transit service.

How should LA urbanize? Look to Seoul

The COVID-19 crisis provides the most visible evidence yet that reducing automobile use in Los Angeles would drastically improve the region’s air quality.

LA Smog: Pre- and Post-COVID. Source: Reuters.

Longer term, California must cut down on vehicle travel in order to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and stave off climate change.

Contrary to what one might expect, the biggest challenge in Southern California is not necessarily infrastructure (although America’s high subway construction costs impede development) but land use.

Limited housing development, particularly in jobs-rich areas like the Westside, has led to rising home prices, displacing low- and mid-income households to the suburban periphery. This forces populations that might have once relied on active or public transportation to buy automobiles and commute long distances to work.

The current development dynamics in Los Angeles concentrate density in Downtown and surrounding Eastside neighborhoods. This strategy is partly the result of staunch opposition to development from inner suburban homeowners. But it also reflects a business and political leadership’s desire to copy the East Coast (i.e. Manhattan) by centering the poly-centric metropolis around a high-rise “core.”

Most multi-family development in the LA basin is concentrated in Downtown LA. Source: Greg Morrow, UCLA, 2015.

As I have written previously, this focus on “re-developing” the inner city encourages the very gentrification that up-zoning should combat. It also fails to develop enough to make a dent in housing prices.

Rather than try to recreate the 19th-century cities of East Coast or Europe, Los Angeles should build out like the twentieth- and twenty-first mega-cities of East Asia.

Seoul at night. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The mid- to high-dense, amorphous sprawl of Seoul and Tokyo more closely matches the urban development pattern of Los Angeles than the ordered core-and-periphery pattern of Chicago, New York or London.

Developing housing and transit along East Asian lines would result in higher transit use, lower emissions and a more vibrant economy. It would also counteract a longstanding tradition of marginalizing East Asia in policy discussions.

Seoul vs. LA and the Euro-Atlantic City

For starters, let’s compare LA to New York and Seoul, South Korea.

Both Seoul and LA’s urbanized areas cover a broad swath of territory. Greater Los Angeles extends for more than 130 miles–from Ventura to Temecula. The Seoul Capital Area, which incorporates Gyeonggi Province and the independent cities of Seoul and Incheon, encompasses more than 12 percent of South Korea’s landmass.

Los Angeles (white) over Gyeonggi Province, whose outer boundaries delineate extent of metropolitan Seoul (purple)

Seoul sprawls densely. Travel 18 miles west of Seoul’s Central Business District, to Incheon’s Seongnam-Dong neighborhood, and you’ll still find yourself in a compact urban setting.

The neighborhood’s narrow streets, moderately-tall buildings (relative to the street) and diverse street-fronting land uses, make the area easily accessible by foot.

Los Angeles is frequently derided as “one giant suburb.” But its expansive suburbs are quite built up.

Travel 18 miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, to north-central Long Beach and you’re still in a neighborhood of small parcels and tight street grids. Development intensities are lower than in Seoul but higher than in the stereotypical suburb. On the residential streets, two to three story apartment buildings alternate with single-family homes. Pacific Coast Highway’s auto shops and strip malls leave a lot to be desired but some of the north-south streets like Pacific Avenue have more street-fronting retail.

By contrast, traveling 18 miles east of Midtown Manhattan brings you to Long Island’s Garden City, an almost exclusively residential area, dominated by single-family homes on spacious lots.

Its the same story with London.

The Euro-Atlantic core-periphery development model contains density within an envelope that both LA and Seoul greatly exceed.

As in LA, both jobs and population have dispersed in Seoul in recent years. As early as 1997, suburbs like Incheon and Suwon rivaled the central area of Seoul in employment.

Source: Hee-Yung Jin, Seoul Development Institute. “Seoul Metropolitan Area: Growth Patterns and Policy Agenda.” 2004.

Except Seoul’s suburban density is denser and more walkable than LA’s.

What Makes Seoul’s Suburbs a Model for LA’s?

I will get more into the specifics of what LA can do in a future article. Some general pointers:

  1. The streets are narrower, making it more difficult to drive (since the streets can’t accommodate “peak period” vehicle congestion) and easier to cross the street.
  2. The buildings are taller, more tightly spaced and more mixed-use in nature, reducing walking distances between different activity points. Note: LA’s zoning laws prohibit this!
  3. The rapid transit system (subway+commuter rail) is more extensive, with a less radial focus. Seongnam-do is served by a subway line running on a north-south axis through Incheon. This connects with both the employment centers by the port of Incheon (to the south) and an east/west line (to the north) connecting to Downtown Seoul. LA, by contrast, follows the Chicago/New York model of routing rail (and many bus) lines to converge on Downtown.
Seoul subway map with Seongnam do circled in black and north-south line marked in red. Source: Seoul Metro
Even with near-term expansion and re-branding, LA’s Metro remains pretty downtown centric. Source WIkimedia Commons

Results

Private cars only have a 23.5 percent mode share in Seoul, compared to a 70 percent mode share in LA. Almost 40 percent of Seoul-ites travel by subway and another 28 percent travel by bus.

Mode Shares in Seoul as of 2012. Source: Seoul Solutions

On the other hand, the average cost for a studio in a “normal” neighborhood in Seoul is only 537 dollars.

Source: Flickr

All aerials and streetview scenes courtesy of Google Maps.

Why the West Ignores East Asia at its Own Peril

The only countries in the world that have effectively contained COVID-19 have been in high-income East Asia. Despite strong travel links and economic ties to Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong staved off the mass infection now afflicting Europe and the US through early deployment of social distancing measures (including public mask-wearing and mandatory quarantine of infected individuals) and travel restrictions. South Korea contained its outbreak “curve”–the worst in the world in February–through extensive testing, followed by contact tracing (through both personal interviews and GPS-based mobile tracking) of positive cases.

The examples are not merely informative but instructive. While infection rates slow in most of Europe and United States, suggesting containment in the near future, removing lock-downs on either side of the Atlantic will be incredibly risky unless leaders follow East Asia’s lead in detecting and isolating infected individuals.

Unfortunately, while both Europe and the US seek to emulate South Korea’s drive-thru testing procedure, much of European and US public opinion seems skeptical about the adoption of mobile contact tracing used in South Korea and Taiwan. A perceived cultural difference pops up repeatedly in the skeptics’ arguments.

For instance, Vox’s Ezra Klein casts doubt on a Harvard University plan to develop a nationwide tracking app (of positive test results) by acknowledging that “while similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture.” A BBC article on the subject contrasts western “liberal democracies” with countries like “China, Singapore and South Korea”, implying that mobile contact tracing is more acceptable in the autocratic “East” than in the democratic “West.”

Its not just mobile contact tracing which encounters this dismissive mindset. Renee C. Wurth, a Public Health Professor at Northwestern University, warns that East Asian societies’ widespread face mask use does not make this an essential strategy for combating COVID-19 in the west: Rather, it is Asia’s “community-oriented cultures,” that are the true key to their success.

By insisting that Asian countries are fundamentally different from the West, these dismissals of Asian policy successes reveal the tenacious persistence of Orientalist stereotypes about East Asia.

Public Health Officials in the West advised against mask-wearing at first. ©Irfan Kahn, Los Angeles Times.

Since the time of Marco Polo, the Western World has perceived East Asia as irredeemably “exotic” and “mysterious.”

The image of the Orient as a threatening and monolithic “Other”–replete with strange foods, secretive rituals and persons who were not quite human–took hold over the centuries. This construct, which post-colonial scholars refer to as Orientalism, reached its zenith at the end of the 19th-century, when Western Powers encroached on East Asia.

Social Scientists developed grand theories, based on ecology (e.g. Marx’ “Oriental Despotism” hypothesis, which held that control of irrigation systems led to stagnant bureaucracies in Eastern polities) or culture (e.g. Confucianism as a cause of China’s decline) to explain Europe’s advancement relative to East Asia. Although objective on the surface, such theories implicitly justified Western hegemony relative to East Asia, and portrayed Asia as an “ontologically-different entity” (in the words of one historian) from the West-the former being fundamentally incomparable to the latter and requiring neither depth or nuance in analysis.

ln popular culture, the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War fueled fears of a “Yellow Peril”-an invasion of Europe by barbaric hordes. In the United States, opponents of Chinese immigration to California spread lurid rumors of Chinese consuming rats and other unsavory foodstuffs.

19th Century Orientalism: Chinese immigrants as innumerable, rat-eating horde vs. the God-fearing virile Euro-American Worker

Early reporting on COVID-19’s origins at a wet market revealed the endurance of Orientalist stereotype of Chinese consumption of exotic foods.

And as Asian countries have emerged at the forefront of global efforts to combat COVID-19, Orientalism lurks beneath the surface of western public opinion’s disregard for their policy successes.

For instance, Wurth’s opinion on the irrelevance East Asian mask-wearing, borrows from the trope that Confucian culture is a determining factor in the region’s mores. Instead of using the concept to explain East Asian stagnation, she touts it as a reason for the region’s advancement. Nevertheless, the concept still renders the region as “foreign,” albeit for the purpose of drawing policy best practices.

Moreover, Wurth, Klein and other writers have tended to describe East Asian countries’ policy success in collective terms, ignoring vast differences in policy and society. Discussing Singapore, a one-party state, and South Korea, a democratic presidential republic, in the same breath makes as little sense as equating the United Kingdom with Franco-era Spain. And yet, the fact that East Asia is not Europe permits such abstraction.

Nuances and details in East Asian policies are also ignored. The Toronto Star quotes an expert saying that South Korean contract tracing would “never work” in a western democracy, ignoring the fact that a) South Korea is a democracy and b) contact tracing app has also raised privacy concerns within South Korea. I have heard similar statements made by Twitter users:

Finally, Atlantic Magazine has published profiles in courage on Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern but none on (South Korean President) Moon Jae-in or (Taiwanese President) Tsai Ing-Wen (the latter has earned a paragraph in an article on female leadership in combating COVID). 

The hard truth is that Westerners still regard even developed Alien countries as alien: Robotic marvels that can earn a plaudit or two but never be seriously emulated or examined.


To be clear, this is not just a media issue (and there are some great articles like this WIRED one on Taiwan). Nor did this problem suddenly reappear with COVID-19. Over the years, I have received strange looks and remarks when I point to Japan as an example for American commuter rail planning.

But now the stakes are much higher.

If we (in the United States and Europe) don’t want to contend with a two-year lockdown or hundreds of thousands of more deaths, we will have to acknowledge some hard truths:

  1. South Korea is the only country in the world to have stamped out a large-scale (1000+) COVID-19 outbreak. There is no excuse for throwing out examples like New Zealand (which instituted a lockdown when there were only 100 cases) or Germany (which-despite mass testing-has over 100,000 cases and 5,000 diseases, with no signs of letting down).
  2. Stamping out COVID demands that Western Countries evaluate South Korea’s (and Taiwan’s and even Vietnam’s) policies in detail and determine how they can legally design and implement such policies.
  3. The belief that the West is the standard-bearer of progress, and therefore has nothing to learn from culturally- or geographically-distinct regions, is no longer true. Its high time we face up.